Apr 06

“Fragile Bully (…Narcissism in the Age of Trump)”

The archetypal narcissist is a crazymaker, at once needy and aggressive, desperate
for love and yet rejecting of it, fragile child and bully. Laurie Helgoe, Fragile Bully

Psychologist Laurie Helgoe, who previously wrote Introvert Power, also has some important things to say in her 2019 Fragile Bully: Understanding Our Destructive Affair With Narcissism in the Age of Trump. In this book she explains how to disengage from people in your lives who display Trump-like behavior.

First, more about the term “fragile bully” from Kenneth N. Levy, PhD: It’s about “…the paradoxical dynamic of narcissism—that the grandiosity and surrounding bravado belies an underlying fragility and brittleness.”

A key statement from Helgoe: “When I talk to clients, friends, and family members who are trying to exit a destructive dance [around a narcissist], two consistent themes emerge: feelings of failure for being unable to fix the fragile bully, and feelings of shame for staying in the dance.”

So, how does one reconcile this dance? Knowledge and advice can be found within the following quotes I’ve selected from a resource on Helgoe’s website:

With severe personality disorders such as borderline and narcissistic personality disorders, it is often the people in the lives of the affected person who suffer. So we can often sense we are dealing with a narcissist by the feelings he or she arouses in us.

Narcissistic characteristics such as grandiosity and a sense of entitlement tend to elicit aggressive feelings—a desire to put the narcissist in his or her place. The narcissist’s lack of empathy may elicit extreme frustration. And on the flip side, the narcissist’s focus on his or her fragility can leave others feeling trapped—trying to “fix” the narcissist so that he or she can be more available. People are also drawn in by the narcissist’s charisma or fragility, gaining a sense of importance by being in the shared spotlight or by the promise of being the fragile narcissist’s savior.

The fragile-bully dynamic leaves loved ones with nowhere to turn: defend yourself, and the partner feels victimized; distance yourself, and the partner feels abandoned; express an independent thought, and the narcissist feels threatened. The unwritten contract is to empty yourself and keep dancing in step with the narcissist’s needs, even when those needs hurt you.

Developing empathy for oneself is crucial to the process of healing and emancipation. It’s also important to make room for the grief of ending a relationship—even a destructive one. The grief may have more to do with disappointment that you were unable to “fix” the narcissist or that you invested so much in a relationship that turned on you.

Narcissism sets up a “you versus me” dynamic, so breaking that dynamic is key. “You are important to me” statements combined with what Craig Malkin calls “empathy prompts”—“I feel/need/want,” help empower the self-absorbed to be cognizant and supportive of the loved one. If such efforts—which may be better accomplished with the help of a therapist—do not work, this may be a sign that the capacity for empathy is just not there.

Jul 20

Mary Trump: 45’s Failures As Well As His Enablers’

The only niece of Donald J. Trump and a clinical psychologist, Mary Trump has titled her new book Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man. States Ted Johnson, Deadline, her wording “is perhaps apt for this moment, as the president dominates each news cycle yet is seemingly unable to sit one out. It’s a bit of a personality paradox that she ascribes to the president: the insecurity of feeling less than and greater than at the same time.”

Among the diagnoses the author believes 45 has are narcissistic personality disorder, dependent personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, a learning disability, and a sleep disorder. But, “The fact is, Donald’s pathologies are so complex and his behaviors so often inexplicable that coming up with an accurate and comprehensive diagnosis would require a full battery of psychological and neurophysical tests that he’ll never sit for.”

Kurt Andersen, Los Angeles Times: “Her basic theory of the case is that Fred, the patriarch of ‘my malignantly dysfunctional family,’ a crude, cruel, selfish, boastful, money-grubbing liar, raised his second son to become a crude, cruel, selfish, boastful, money-grubbing liar.” Paternal approval was contingent on such traits as being a “killer,” for example. “And so Donald’s transgressions ‘became an audition for his father’s favor, as if he were saying ‘See, dad, I’m the tough one. I’m the killer.’”

Supporting this premise, per Lloyd Green, The Guardian, “Mary Trump writes that if the president ‘can in any way profit from your death, he’ll facilitate it, and then ignore the fact that you died’.”

Even if no one is particularly surprised by Mary Trump’s revelations, perhaps we can at least reflect on the parallels between his “malignantly dysfunctional family” and what he’s been creating in the government and in our society. On such current crises as COVID-19, for instance, she states:

His ability to control unfavorable situations by lying, spinning, and obfuscating has diminished to the point of impotence….His egregious and arguably intentional mishandling of the current catastrophe has led to a level of pushback and scrutiny that he’s never experienced before, increasing his belligerence and need for petty revenge as he withholds vital funding, personal protective equipment, and ventilators that your tax dollars have paid for from states whose governors don’t kiss his ass sufficiently.

But the pandemic, of course, is not all. Carlos Lozada, Washington Post: “All the chaos playing out on the national and world stage is a form of family dysfunction writ largest, she explains, with the president’s incessant bragging and bluster directed at ‘his audience of one: his long-dead father’.”

What matters most now, though, is that Trump continues to occupy the White House despite his vast shortcomings and has major enablers. As Megan Garber, The Atlantic, reports, in addition to both her grandparents Mary Trump also blames “the banks that, having vested interests in Trump’s self-mythology, financed him through bad investments and bankruptcies. She blames the media—the tabloids of the 1980s, the television shows of the early 2000s, the political press of 2016—that treated his lies as harmless entertainment. She blames all those who know what he is and still do nothing.”

Of those who know and do nothing, many are appointed, many are elected. With different leadership, the newly elected will replace the appointed in question. To put an end to Trumpism, we need to vote as though our lives depend on it—because, of course, they do.

Dec 11

“Almost Everything” by Anne Lamott

Those who enjoy Lamott’s consistently self-deprecating humor, vulnerability, and occasional nuggets of positivity will enjoy her latest; others will be adrift. Publishers Weekly, regarding Almost Everything by Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott‘s newest book, Almost Everything: Notes on Hopewas written “as a gift to her grandson and niece,” notes Kirkus Reviews. This particular series of essays, states Kirkus, “is an obsessively inward-focusing hodgepodge of life stories, advice, and ramblings.”

Although not for everyone, Lamott is certainly loved by many. Here’s a sampling of quotes from Almost Everything:

Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.

Could you say this about yourself right now, that you have immense and intrinsic value, at your current weight and income level, while waiting to hear if you got the job or didn’t, or sold your book or didn’t? This idea that I had all the value I’d ever needed was concealed from me my whole life. I want a refund.

There is almost nothing outside you that will help in any lasting way, unless you are waiting for a donor organ.

Peace of mind is an inside job, unrelated to fame, fortune, or whether your partner loves you. Horribly, what this means is that it is also an inside job for the few people you love most desperately in the world. We cannot arrange lasting safety or happiness for our most beloved people. They have to find their own ways, their own answers.

We believe that we are all in this together. This was the message of childhood, that being together meant connection, like an electrical circuit — think school recess on the blacktop, summer camp, and all those family holiday gatherings. Ram Dass said that if you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.

The world is Lucy teeing up the football.

This country has felt more stunned and doomed than at any time since the assassinations of the 1960s and the Vietnam War, and while a sense of foreboding may be appropriate, the hate is not. At some point, the hate becomes an elective. I was becoming insane, letting politicians get me whipped up into visions of revenge, perp walks, jail. And this was satisfying for a time. But it didn’t work as a drug, neither calming nor animating me. There is no beauty or safety in hatred. As a long-term strategy, based on craziness, it’s doomed.

Certain special people of late have caused a majority of us to experience derangement. Some of us have developed hunchbacks, or tics in our eyelids. Even my Buddhist friends have been feeling despair; and when they go bad, you know the end is nigh. Booker T. Washington said, “I shall allow no man to belittle my soul by making me hate him,” and this is the most awful thing about it. Yet part of me sort of likes it, too, for the flush of righteousness, the bond to half of the electorate. Who would we be without hate? In politics, breakups, custody disputes, hate turns us into them, with a hangover to boot, the brown-bottle flu of the spirit.

Haters want us to hate them, because hate is incapacitating. When we hate, we can’t operate from our real selves, which is our strength.

I have known hell, and I have also known love. Love was bigger.

I have taken the path of liberation: kindness.

Jun 02

Not a Role Model: Trumpian Actions Vs. Origins

Whether any of the various opinions about the personality and state of mind of our current president will ever be proven, one thing you can bet on is that he’s serving as a poor role model for kids and adults alike. Such things as bullying, hate crimes, and ethical lapses, for example, are arguably on the rise under his leadership.

Poor role model for kids? Donald Trump actually acts like a child himself, many have said. As Michael Daly, Daily Beast, has pointed out, though, this comparison is unfair—to children, that is. His article is full of such nuggets as:

  • “Many children do not know exactly what sexual assault constitutes, but even the ones who thought Trump was talking about grabbing somebody’s kitty cat would know that is not something to brag about.”
  • “Most children also know that you should not say one thing and do another, as has Trump in boasting about how much he has done for veterans while devoting years to vanquishing disabled veterans who were exercising a legal right to peddle on the street outside his elegant tower.”
  • “Most children definitely know not to mock people with disabilities, as Trump did with a reporter, or to make fun of people when they fall ill, as he did with Clinton after she nearly fainted on 9/11 this year.”

Alison Gopnik, New York Times, agrees. “The scientific developmental research of the past 30 years shows that Mr. Trump is utterly unlike a 4-year-old.”

  • “Four-year-olds care deeply about the truth…”
  • “Four-year-olds are insatiably curious…”
  • “Four-year-olds can pay attention…”
  • “Four-year-olds understand the difference between fantasy and reality…”
  • “Four-year-olds have a ‘theory of mind,’ an understanding of their own minds and those of others…”
  • “Four-year-olds, contrary to popular belief, are not egocentric or self-centered…”
  • “Four-year-olds have a strong moral sense…”
  • “Four-year-olds are sensitive to social norms and think that they and other people should obey them…”

If not a child, mentally ill? Unfair to those who have such disorders, says psychiatrist Allen J. Frances (Psychology Today). “Most people with mental illness are nice, polite, well mannered, well meaning, decent people. They suffer, but don’t cause suffering.”

A recent mental health conference emphasized that “the issue is no longer what psychiatric diagnosis Donald Trump merits or not. It is how to avert the ‘malignant normality’—as psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton called it—now threatening American democracy” (Hara Estroff Marano, Psychology Today).

Yeah, but Trump’s evolving, working on being more presidential, i.e, a better role model. Hooey. As Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq., High Conflict Institute, author of Trump Bubbles, puts it, he “will not and cannot change, for the following reasons”:

  1. High-Conflict Personality: Trump appears to have all the traits of a high-conflict personality, which include: a preoccupation with blaming others; all-or-nothing thinking; intense or unmanaged emotions; and extreme behavior or threats of extreme behavior…
  2. Possible personality disorder: While I cannot diagnose someone with a mental health problem who I have never met and thoroughly assessed, he seems to have some possible traits of this as well…If he has a full personality disorder, then he will keep repeating his present narrow range of behavior, even when it hurts him and others.
  3. Social science: Research on business leadership shows that dramatic, charismatic CEO’s get more attention at the start, but they don’t last as long and the organization doesn’t do as well…
  4. Business history: Trump has a history of failed businesses, bankruptcies and lawsuits – by him and against him. Yet he has not changed his tune or seemed to have learned any lessons from this…
  5. Political history: …There is a surprisingly close fit with the pattern that Adolf Hitler used to rise in the 1920’s and 1930’s…

He’s also been likened to Richard M. Nixon, of course. And we all know what kind of a role model we had there.

Jan 16

“Citizen Therapists for Democracy” Newly Forming

Several months ago I posted about Citizen Therapists Against Trumpism, an organization founded by psychologist Bill Doherty during the presidential campaign. Now Doherty has announced the formation of its replacement, Citizen Therapists for Democracy, an international dues-paying association dedicated to newly evolving goals.

As Doherty stated in his launch-related email, goals of Citizen Therapists for Democracy include the following:

  • Learning and spreading transformative ways to practice therapy with a public dimension
  • Rebuilding democratic capacity in communities
  • Resisting anti-democratic ideologies and practice

Some excerpted points from the Citizen Therapists FAQ section:

If it’s partisan politics (vote for my candidate or party), then it doesn’t have a place in therapy. But if politics broadly means how people with different views figure out how to live together and govern themselves—and then the policies that emerge from this process—then it’s game for conversation in therapy.

To be quite concrete, if you treat anxious or depressed Latino or Muslim clients who are frightened about Trumpism (and anti-Semitism is on the rise), is your job only to treat their symptoms or to also oppose the public xenophobia? We believe the nature of our work inherently combines public and private.

Keep in mind that Citizen Therapists for Democracy is not an “anti” movement. We are promoting democracy and public mental health, and in those contexts will oppose threats from any quarter. Further, there is collective power when members of a healing profession engage the public domain in their role as professionals.

On the matter of the blank slate, it’s really a myth in therapy. If a client learns that his/her therapist is in an organization that opposes aspects of Trumpism, well, that’s probably not going to be such a big surprise based on lots of assumptions the client has already made (you drive a Prius and have the New Yorker magazine in the waiting room). In the same way, if a client worries out loud about family members being rounded up and deported, and the therapist agrees that this is a scary public policy, is this not a validation rather than a misuse of therapist power?

The social forces that allowed Donald Trump the man to become President, and that are rising around the world, are so much bigger than his personality that focusing on a diagnosis risks marginalizing the contributions of therapists. Once mental health professionals took a diagnostic position during the campaign, that’s all the media wanted to know from them—before the media moved on to more interesting topics.

“You’re probably NOT a good fit if any of the following is a big ‘yes’ for you” (from the website):

  • Your main focus for action now is making sure Trump is a one-term President with a Democratic Congress after two years.
  • You think that therapists must continue to beat the drum that Trump has a personality disorder that makes him unfit to be President.
  • Your main approach to Trump supporters in the White working class is help them see how they’ve been duped.
  • You believe that Progressive politics has most of the answers to our nation’s problems, with Conservatives having little or nothing to offer.
  • It would feel weird to have Conservative therapists share a social change organization with you.